Night in the Negev
by Sophie Gooman
I keep coming back to this moment. It wasn’t like one of those triumphant places you arrive after
hiking a crazy hard summit or coming over the ridgeline after a particularly difficult skiing
expedition. I didn’t make it to the top, breathing hard, and yell out, whooping with joy. I doubt
whether the people who were with me even remember it. I first wrote about this place and this
moment 13 years ago, and it’s stuck, inexplicably, like when you catch a scent that transports
you home or a riff from a song that brings back the memory of a younger self.
The evening arrived in Israel’s Negev Desert awash in rose gold light, and the temperature
dropped quickly as the sun dipped behind the edge of the crater. We had spent the better part
of the afternoon hiking into the Makhtesh Ramon, the world’s largest erosion crater. The
heart-shaped depression was left behind when the oceans retreated from this area millions of
years ago. The land is now stark and dry; fossils from ancient sea creatures dot the hills, and
only ibex, lizards, and small desert creatures dare to spend much time here any more.
The Negev and its Ramon Crater sit in the southern part of one of the most fraught geo-political
landscapes on earth. Travel north from the desert and you’ll soon run into the Dead Sea with
Jordan to its east and the Gaza Strip with the Mediterranean Sea to its west. Eventually, you’ll
make your way to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Sea of Galilee, and then the Golan Heights and the
northern border with Syria. If you drove from the southern tip of Israel at the edge of the Red
Sea to the northern border, it would only take you about nine hours. The same amount of time it
would take you to drive from Denver to Yellowstone National Park.
Thousands of years of human struggle and war have left this land and its people scarred and
battle-worn, but as sunset approached, the Negev Desert was quiet and beautiful. We set up
our campsite as it grew darker, choosing to lay our sleeping pads down on the desert floor with
no tents or cover. The ground was still warm from the heat of the day, and the stars came out
slowly and then all at once.
I was edging towards sleep when I heard the humming. It was distant at first but gained
momentum and volume and then it boomed across the desertscape. My eyes shot open, and I
watched as fighter jets rushed towards the far horizon, their wings blocking out the stars. The
sound was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; it reverberated against the walls of the crater
and through to my bones. The ground vibrated against the sound waves with each pass of the
jets, a screaming reminder of the civilization that existed just on the other side of the cliffs.
The war games went on for about an hour. The green and red lights on the tips of the wings
flashed as they passed overhead. Could they see us? Did they know we were here? After the
fear subsided and my heart rate slowed to a more normal pace, I settled into the folds of my
mummy bag and watched as the planes dove in and out of formation.
In the Jewish cultural tradition, there are fables called midrash which do their best to render
relatable and make moral sense of different moments of the human experience. One such story
about the creation of humans goes something like this:
On the sixth day of creation, God presents the idea of creating humankind to the angels in the
heavenly court. They freak out, chaos erupts, and the angels take sides. One side argues that
righteousness justifies humankind’s creation, while one argues that they will be full of lies.
Another side says that humankind’s inherent justness justifies his creation, while the fourth
argues that he will incite fighting and disrupt the peace on earth. While the angels are going at
it, God pops down to earth and creates humankind in his image. He then flies back up to the
heavens and cries out, “Hey, angels! What good are you doing with your arguing? Humankind
has already been created.”
Humans are complicated. What’s particularly interesting about this fable is that there exists a
level of self-awareness — just like the angels knew about the pitfalls of human nature, we know
that our footprints on natural landscapes, our cities, and our very presence all make things more
complicated and dangerous for the natural world. It’s our human politics that make it hard for us
to coexist with a world full of natural wonders.
Sometimes awe is loud and triumphant, a “woop, woop!” as you reach the end of the trail and
catch a glimpse of the distant mountain range or a guttural yelp as you leap to the next hand or
foothold and turn to look at the valley below. But more often I’ve found that awe is quiet in its
strength. It’s the wind drifting up the sides of the crater and the scorpion that scoots across the
rocky ground. Awe is really about sitting in the belly of a crater, and even in the darkest hours of
the night, still seeing the glow of the sun on the horizon. It’s about taking a deep breath and only
smelling the hint of rain in the atmosphere. Awe is a reminder that the quiet strength of nature,
in spite of our interference and our existence, and even in one of the most wartorn places in the
world, thrives as time pushes forward.
I must have fallen asleep at some point and soon sunrise arrived without much fanfare. We
cleaned up camp and slowly traversed back up the sides of the crater towards a shower or our
next destination. Years have worn away the edges on a specific itinerary.
Nature is fully present in a way that humans can’t be when fighter jet engines turn up the
volume on fear and uncertainty. It’s not the shock of the sonic booms nor the fear of the war
planes that I’ve held onto all these years; it’s that feeling of warmth, of being held by the ground
as it slowly cooled from the heat of the day. The fresh air, the uncountable stars overhead. In spite of the boom of the war planes and the guards with guns that surrounded our camp, I felt a peace that I can only ascribe to being fully present in that space between human chaos and the wild.